Laura Hollis, Faculty Contributor

Stand in the company of the elders. Who is wise? Attach yourself to such a one.”

Sirach 4:34

This past summer, I lost two cousins within 90 days of each other—a brother and a sister, both of whom had suffered with substance abuse issues and resulting distress, and traumatized relationships for most of their adolescent and adult lives. Every untimely death is acutely painful, but there is something particularly sorrowful about a life that was punctuated—and ended prematurely—by poor choices. It produces the heartbreaking realization that sometimes, at least in this life, there are no happy endings.

These events and others in my life have turned me to thinking much of late about the role that “choice” plays in our society—how often it is touted as an end in itself, and how little attention is paid to the nature of a choice, the consequences of a choice, the need to identify—and make—better choices, and the role that lack of wisdom plays in all of this.

In many cultures—including ours, until fairly recently—wisdom has had enormous value. But wisdom is not ingrained. It is learned, and therefore must be handed down. In a society where wisdom is valued, it is cultivated, inculcated and reinforced by myriad aspects of culture: family, friendships, school, religious upbringing and morality, communities, churches, even commonly-enjoyed forms of entertainment: literature, music and the performing arts. It is a product of observation, of intuition, of collected experience, of understanding of human nature, of legitimate fears and of lovethe love that elders have for their children, and their desire for children to be healthy and happy and whole. And as such, it has always been a gift from one generation to another.

Young people have probably always felt the need to carve out their own paths. But our society has gone much further. We have become a culture that not only worships youth, but youthful indiscretion. As a result, wisdom has lost its value and its impact.

When the lessons of wisdom leave, something else will take their place. The actors in the American social infrastructure that once conveyed wisdom have been undermined and eroded, and the wisdom that they had the power to convey has been supplanted by a language of “freedom,” “choice” and “legal rights.”

This social shift from an emphasis on cultural wisdom to that of legality is foolish, as is the worship of “freedom” or “choices” without mores. Freedom without self-restraint is anarchy. And proper self-restraint must come from something other than law. The law is a blunt instrument, and in a free society should only restrain people’s behavior at the margins. It reflects wisdom, but does not create it, and can only play a supporting role in conveying it.

Furthermore, while legal rights must be preserved and protected, not every freewhich is to say legalchoice is a wisechoice. Many “legal” choices have painful consequences. It is wisdom that helps us avoid those, not law.

Cultural attitudes about sexuality are by no means the only space where one can see the corrosion associated with the diminution and departure of wisdom. But they are as good an exemplar of this phenomenon as any.

It seems that each week’s news brings another account of a sexual assault by young men on young girls—their friends or classmates. The template is familiar by now: the attack is fueled by alcohol or drugs, involving multipleperpetrators (with alarming frequency) and witnessed by others whose utter disregard for the gravity of the situation is displayed by the fact that they think only to capture, broadcast, publish, post or text the event, but not to stop it. Even worse is the humiliation, teasing and bullying of the victims that occurs afterwards, and the utter despair behind some victims’ decisions to take their own lives.

When we read about these cases, we are aghast. Stunned. Shocked.

But why? Are these horrific events not the direct result of the erosion of wisdom, the worship of “choice” without context and the reduction of all actions to their “legality”?

Consider our culture. Our “heroes”—and by that I mean those we make famous and wealthy—act with utter lack of self-restraint and are rewarded for it. Books, movies, TV shows and music promote violence, profanity, coarse sexuality, dissolute promiscuity, drug use and abuse—and we watch them, listen to them, pay for them. We hand our children the tools by which they can make themselves “famous” with hundreds of “followers” in social media they cannot possibly understand, much less control, and at a time in their lives when they are most likely to exercise poor judgment.

This is what we have permitted our society to become. This is the way the “grownups” behave. This is what we not only tolerate, but celebrate. Why are we surprised when the youth emulate it? Why are we shocked when a group of young men, fueled by alcohol, take sexual advantage of a young girl, also inebriated, and laugh about it, while friends send twitpics and post to Instagram accounts? They can watch music videos on YouTube with the same behavior and watch the artist win awards for it.

That these things happen is bad enough. But we are not having honest conversations about it. We blame the media. The problem is not the media. The problem is the content. The problem is us. And we do not want to hear that—from anyone.

By way of example, Emily Yoffe, who writes the “Dear Prudence” advice column for Slate, was sharply criticized recently for her advice to young women to avoid situations—especially binge drinking—where they could be victimized. There was a time when this sort of simple and straightforward advice would have been considered wisdom. Instead, people piled on: “You’re blaming the victim!” “Being stupid is not a crime, but assault is criminal conduct.” “Women have the legal right to get drunk, wear revealing clothes, go back to a man’s place, and fool around. But when they decide to stop, ‘no’ means ‘no.” And so on. We have all heard these arguments.

With all due respect, this is precisely my point.

No one is “blaming” the victim. Being stupid is nota crime. Yes, assault iscriminal behavior. And absolutely, a woman has a legalright to do all the things that Yoffe’s critics defended.

But there is a vast difference between having a legal right to a particular choice, and it being a wisechoice. I have a legal right to walk down a dark alley in a crime-ridden neighborhood, alone and unarmed at night. It is a legalchoice. But is it a wisechoice? Can I comfort myself with the legality of my choice in my hospital bed, recovering from a rape or other violent attack? Yes, my attackers will be prosecuted if they are found, and punished if they are convicted. Will that make me feel better as the doctors put plates in my skull? If I can avoid such results with sensible decisions, why wouldn’t I?

There will always be dangers. Predators. Perilous or foolhardy situations, and a plethora of options within them. The deep-seated human desire to improve society cannot give way to an irrational belief in its perfectibility. And it is not just unwise, but cruel, to sacrifice multiple generations on the altar of such a philosophy.

The most important gift that elders can give the next generation is the ability to discern—and make—good decisions. Betterdecisions. Betterchoices. This is the gift of wisdom. And the fruit of wisdom is, if not always outright happiness, at least reduced misery. That is enough reason to embrace it.

Laura Hollis is a Double Domer (English and Law) who teaches Business Law and Entrepreneurship at the Mendoza College of Business.